Too many companies lead with their experience as if it’s the most important consideration for the customer. This is especially true of incumbents. The problem is that every company that’s a serious competitor will have relevant experience. Maybe it won’t be the same. But it will be enough for the customer to consider their offer. If all you put on the table is your precious experience, then you’re at risk of losing to someone with a better offering.
The main reason you are at risk is that experience doesn’t matter much. You will never lose out to someone on a job solely because you had 15 years of experience and they had 17. Even a gap like 5 or 10 probably won’t matter. The only reason it matters on a resume is that companies get so many of them and do such a bad job of assessing which candidates are better from what they put on paper. In a proposal it clearer which is the better offer. But the more proposals they receive, the more they’ll focus on such details. If you are competing against dozens or hundreds of companies, take note. If you are only competing against two or three companies who will all make it to the final cut, then experience probably should not be your go to way of saying how great you are.
How to lose on experience
- Claim that no one else can do it right without your experience. The closer you come to thinking or presenting that you’re irreplaceable, the more you hurt your credibility.
- Claim that anyone else will have startup problems just because you did. Your “valuable lessons learned” could also be seen as a history of making mistakes. Do you really want to stake your win on a claim that just because you messed something up, someone else will?
- Think that just because you’ve been doing it for a while that you do it well, or that because you’ve done it longer you are better. We’ve all worked with individuals who had tons of experience but just weren’t that good. Companies are the same.
- Make experience your biggest differentiator. Experience makes you qualified. It gets you considered. It can help you win. But everyone who is a serious competitor can spin their experience to not only be relevant, but advantageous. Sometimes different or outside experiences can be better. It’s true in life. It’s true in business.
Focus on what does matter
No one cares about how much experience you have. What they care about are what lessons you've learned and how you'll use them to improve the results they'll get. What did you take away from your experience that leads to you doing things differently from your competitors and in a better way? Don’t ever bring up your experience without explaining that. Ever.
How does experience relate to value?
Customers buy based on value. Even if they ignore everything you think is valuable and make their decision on price, that’s their determination of value. Saying you have “X years of experience” adds no value. Saying that "because you have X years of experience you’ll avoid a problem, do things in a better differentiated way, or produce a better result" is how you translate experience into value.
What makes some experience better?
Relevance. In U.S. Government proposals relevance is usually defined as size, scope, and complexity. This is a useful way of establishing the relevance of your experience in any type of proposal.
But any project that produces a relevant lesson learned or that impacts the results the new customer can expect can be relevant to the points you are making about your offering.
Reference vs. experience
If the customer is evaluating past performance or conducting a reference check, they want to make contact with your customer and hear what they have to say instead of what you have to say. They are evaluating whether past customers you did relevant work for have good things to say about you.
If they ask for your corporate experience separate from a reference check, what they really want to know is whether you have done relevant work before in a way that supports your ability to fulfill their needs. It's not the amount of experience, or even the depth and breadth. It's whether they can believe that you'll be able to deliver as promised because you've done it before with a similar size, scope, and complexity. When customers ask you to describe your experience, they are really asking whether they can trust you. It's not the description they care about, it's the proof (or lack thereof) of your trustworthiness.
How to win with less experience
- Do a better job of establishing relevance. Talk about how the size, scope, and/or complexity of your previous work means you'll be able to produce better results for this project.
- Show the value of your experience and let someone else cite the number of years. Show the value by explaining how your experience has taught you to do things differently in a way that produces better results that they won’t get from your competitors.
- Ignore experience altogether. The only reason experience matters is that it helps the customer believe you can do the work. There are other ways to establish your credibility. Focus on the trustworthiness of your offer.
Who are you?
If you identify as the company with the most experience, you are at risk from someone with a better offer. But if you identify as the company that produces a better, differentiated result that comes from your experience, you have a competitive advantage. The key is to figure out what kind of better results can come from your experience and to differentiate it so that they can only get it from you. Don’t just say you have “lessons learned.” Identify what lessons you learned and how they will lead to a better result for the customer. Then be the company that delivers that result. Don’t be the one that is simply experienced.